Buzzfeed recently reported that a new service will transform Wikipedia entries into “real” academic papers so that students can cite them in their work without getting penalized by their teachers.
Teachers are, understandably, up in arms about this. After all, we have spent at least the last decade trying to explain to students why it’s not a reliable – and therefore citable – source. But the solution here is not to blame students, or fight them, or try to come up with novel ways of catching this new form of unacceptably shoddy research. It’s to teach them, of course.
So I was inspired to put together an assignment to help college students understand why Wikipedia isn’t a good academic source, but how it can still be used for research. I think this would be a great first assignment for a research methods class or even a beginner or intermediate class with a research assignment. I chose to format the assignment as an annotation, rather than a paper, because it makes it seem like less work and puts the focus on the student’s observations and conclusions, rather than their writing skills. Since this assignment requires actually reading the sources cited in Wikipedia articles, it also forces students to learn how to use library resources before they start their own research projects. I would probably pair this assignment with a class activity to discuss the experience afterward and decide as a class how to best use Wikipedia for research.
Wikipedia is an excellent resource for quick summaries of complex topics, and articles and links within the site can be a useful roadmap for research. But the site itself is not an appropriate academic source. In the site’s own words,
…citation of Wikipedia in research papers may be considered unacceptable, because Wikipedia is not a reliable source… This is because Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at any moment. Although when an error is recognized, it is usually fixed. However, because Wikipedia cannot monitor thousands of edits made everyday, some of those edits could contain vandalism or could be simply wrong and left unnoticed for days, weeks, months, or even years.
However, articles on Wikipedia, especially in the field of history, often present a clear, concise overview of narratives, concepts, and events. Moreover, Wikipedia requires citations in its articles, so the site is often a good first stop for building a bibliography on a given topic.
For this assignment: identify the Wikipedia page for a topic related to this class. (Tip: pick a smaller or more specific topic, because larger concepts will have longer pages and more sources.) Read the entry, including the references and further/suggested reading sections at the end. Then look up all the citations from the page in those sources. You will need to use library resources to do this, either by going to the library to get the books themselves, or using the library’s access to scholarly databases to access the articles. The main question you need to answer in this assignment is this: does the Wikipedia page on your topic present a fair depiction of it, according to the sources it cites? Then, using the Wikipedia page itself as your base, annotate the entry to show aspects of the page’s presentation of your topic that you either found very correct or very incorrect/misleading. Submit this final annotation.
Steps for preparing your annotation:
- Identify your Wikipedia page:
- Save your page as a PDF by using the commands in your browser to print, and then in the print options menu, selecting “Save to PDF”.
- Open your PDF in Word:
- Use the comments function in Word to highlight individual claims your article makes, and explain how the sources themselves address these claims. Make at least one comment per paragraph. Each comment should point to a specific place in one or more of your sources that can support your conclusion – express this place in the form of a citation at the bottom of the comment in Chicago style:
- Save your commented document as a .docx, adding a cover page with your name, the date, and a title that describes your conclusions. Submit it via email or class submission portal.
- Bias/perspective: do the sources themselves have perspectives that are removed in Wikipedia’s presentation of the topic? Does Wikipedia offer a perspective or bias that the sources do not? Point to specific words or phrases that influence your conclusions.
- Types of sources: does Wikipedia draw from primary or secondary sources? Do the sources it cites refer to any other sources that Wikipedia does not include?
- Origin of sources: are Wikipedia’s sources in a language relevant to the topic? Were they published recently? Do these things matter?
- Shape of the literature: does Wikipedia represent the debates in the literature as presented in the sources cited? Are there any significant sources on this topic it leaves out?
- Accuracy: are there any factual errors or misrepresentations in Wikipedia’s presentation of this topic?
- Narrative: does the Wikipedia article tell a story? Does it tell you how events fit together through cause and effect? Does it emphasize particular issues or themes that help you to identify important elements within the topic?
- Structure: do you agree with the way the Wikipedia article is structured? What about the sources it cites: is their structure similar, and if not, do you agree with their structure?
- Images: is Wikipedia’s use of images helpful and accurate? What about the sources cited?
- Other thoughts: feel free to address other elements of the Wikipedia page in addition to any of those listed above.